Review: Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty

Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty, Peter Sammons. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022.

Summary: A carefully and biblically argued defense of the doctrine of reprobation, dealing with a number of misunderstandings of this doctrine.

Reformed theology takes the sovereignty of God as a starting place–God’s authority and power that accomplishes all things in accord with his will, for God’s pleasure. This includes election, the eternal, unconditional choice of all those who will be saved. Many struggle with this, even though most who affirm this also inform the importance of human choice. Far more difficult, and far less discussed in modern circles is the doctrine of reprobation. By this is meant, in the words of the author of this work “the eternal, unconditional decree of God for the non-elect. In this decree, he chooses to exclude the non-elect from his electing purposes of mercy and to hold them to the strict standards of justice to display the glory of his righteous wrath” (p. 47).

Stern stuff indeed. Because of this, it is not believed by many, or taught even by those who believe it. Peter Sammons believes and teaches reprobation as a integral part of Calvinism and mounts a defense of this doctrine in this volume. For Sammons, reprobation properly understood is not hyper-Calvinism but simply Calvinism.

Key to his argument is a careful study of Romans 9, which spans four chapters of this book. He sees it as explaining why not all believe, although humans know who is elect or reprobate, that reprobation is pretemporal and unconditional, it is not based on foreknowledge of actions, God hardens and shows mercy to whom God wishes, yet God’s decrees do not nullify human responsibility.

He goes on to define a number of key terms, parts of election, perhaps the most importance of which is ultimacy. Double ultimacy contends that God directly intervenes in the hearts of both the elect and the non-elect, a position Sammons associates with hyper-Calvinism and argues makes God the author of sin. He argues for single ultimacy, the direct work of God in the elect and the indirect work through secondary causes in the non-elect. He distinguishes predestination from fatalism and Islamic predestination and argues the impossibility of single predestination (election only) as inconsistent with the character of God. He addresses the arguments against reprobation of its unfairness and that it makes God the author of evil.

As noted earlier, Sammons argument for both the justice of God’s decrees of reprobation and the significance of human choices hinges on a careful discussion of causality–of God as primary and ultimate causality but of secondary proximate and efficient causes. As a particular case, he considers the causality of hardening. He concludes the work with a plea to teach this doctrine as one aspect of revealing the “grandeur of our great God.”

I found the logic of the theological argument more persuasive than the discussion of Romans 9. I am not convinced that you can base the election or reprobation of individuals on the basis of Jacob and Esau and God’s choice of the progenitor of the chosen people in a physical sense. The destiny of people groups, Israel and the Gentiles are the concern of Romans 9-11. That said, I will not be the one who will say what God can and cannot do. Nor do I feel the need to be God’s press agent, putting God’s best foot forward, as it were.

I have seen this doctrine caricatured and treated dismissively. It has been poorly articulated. If you care about such things, Sammons offers a careful, detailed argument that deals with objections and other views. This is a substantive work and not a caricature and those who would deny reprobation need to respond to works like this, or those of the great Reformers.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Cross-Shaped Life

The Cross-Shaped Live, Jeff Kennon. Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2021.

Summary: A practical exploration of what it means to be made in the image of a God who died on the cross, to have the cross shape and form the way we live.

According to Jeff Kennon, two of my favorite books, The Crucifixion by Fleming Routledge and The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott, are among the very few books written in recent years on the cross. Given that the cross is so central to the Christian life, that observation alone is probably worth a book. What this book is about is what it means to “image” God, referring back to the Genesis 1. Kennon contends that God has shown us in the life of Christ, a life shaped by the cross. In fact, what Kennon proposes, using the language of Michael Gorman, is that we image God as our lives become cruciform, shaped by the cross of Christ.

The first four chapters of the book trace the story arc of scripture in terms of roots, ruin, rescue, and restoration. Roots focuses on humanity’s creation in the image of God. Ruin considers our exchange of living in the image of God for the false lure of becoming God, worshiping either ourselves or other things that become idols. Rescue talks about the God, who in Jesus gets his feet dirty, and endures the scandal of the cross, the great exchange of his life for ours. Restoration goes even deeper into the work of the cross, pointing to the reality that to understand what God is like is to understand that this is a God who empties God’s self and dies and we live like God, like Christ, when we live like that, rather than pretending to be gods. That is restoration.

In the next four chapters, Kennon identifies four qualities of the cruciform life. Humility is realizing that we are enough, that God has made us good, loves us, and we’ve nothing to prove. It’s not that we think less of ourselves but rather not thinking of ourselves any differently than we think of others. Service means life lived for others, just for their sake and not being in control. Obedience is saying “not my will” but devoting oneself to listening to Jesus and then doing what he says, even as he did the Father’s will. Obedience thus takes us into the depths of God’s heart. Sacrifice chooses what is best for another over what is best for ourselves.

Kennon supports each theme in the book from scripture and illustrates the key points in each chapter, both from history and his own life, in a straightforward fashion. He moves between Jürgen Moltmann and David Foster Wallace, between N. T. Wright and Jim Carrey as he draws out for us the story of the cross, and how to allow it to shape our lives.

This is a good book to be reading during Lent. All of us need to be reminded of what it means to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ. It is also a good book to give either the person considering what it means to become a follower of Jesus or someone recently baptized who is just beginning the journey of being formed by Christ. In a church so distracted by the latest cultural crisis or scheme to make us successful, Kennon focuses on the good stuff of what it is like to be formed by the cross of Christ. In doing so, he doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, but what we desperately need. It’s truly the only way we’ll discover who we were meant to be.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Welcome, Holy Spirit

Welcome, Holy Spirit, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Beginning with the metaphors for the Holy Spirit, articulates a theology of the Holy Spirit that spans theological traditions and invites readers to be receptive to a deeper experience of the Spirit’s work.

When we confess “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we often have little idea of what we are confessing. Gordon T. Smith thinks there are four important questions to ask about the Holy Spirit: the relation of the Spirit and Jesus, the relation between the Spirit and the created order, the relation between the Spirit and the scriptures, and the relation between the Spirit and the church.

In this work, Smith articulates a theology of the Holy Spirit that seeks to span the major traditions of Christianity in answering these questions. He goes further. He invites us to consider our own tradition, experience, and what it might mean to welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives in a deeper and transforming way.

He begins by reviewing our metaphors for the Holy Spirit as wind or breath, oil or anointing, fire, running water, and hovering dove. He notes that all of these are images of movement and life. The images emphasize the dynamic rather than static character of the Spirit, but do not fully capture the personal character of the Spirit’s being.

He turns to two chapters on the Spirit in specific books of the Bible. He looks at the link between the ascension and Pentecost in Luke and Acts. We often focus on one at the expense of the other and make it all about Jesus but fail to live in the power of the Spirit, or all about the Spirit but leaving Jesus “in the rearview mirror.” He then turns to the gospel of John and exploring the person of Holy Spirit and the Triune God and both the wisdom and heresies of the early church.

He then moves back to creation and the interesting idea of materiality infused with the breath of God and the hope that the one who brought creation to life will also be the one by whom creation is renewed. He concludes the chapter beautifully by inviting those of us who walk in the Spirit to tend the garden. From bringing life to creation, Smith turns to the work of the Spirit in bringing us to new life in Christ and how this might be reflected in our rites of initiation. He notes the two views of the coming of the Holy Spirit as either a two stage process, or integral with new life in Christ. Rather than argue for one or the other, he argues for incorporating rites of Spirit initiation along with water baptism. Along with this, our catechesis ought to prepare new believers for the work of the Triune God in their lives, including continuing receptivity to the Spirit’s indwelling fullness. In an interlude chapter, he warns against idolizing experience rather than the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in the ordinary practices of our lives.

Smith traces this process and the importance of casting vision for growth toward maturity, realizing we are both dependent on the grace of the Spirit to grow and that the ultimate fulfillment of this comes when we meet Christ face to face. We learn step by step to walk in the Spirit and pray in the Spirit, attending to the Spirit’s promptings in our life. This takes us into the question of the Spirit and the Word. He invites us into reading the Spirit-inspired text with both careful study and dependence on the Spirit for illumination, being neither wooden biblicists nor sentimentalists.

Finally he considers the Spirit and the church, both local and global. He articulates a Spirit ecclesiology that emphasizes unity, the ordered expression of the Spirit’s gifts in worship that occurs in song, word, and sacrament. He presses home the work of the Spirit in discerning church governance and that we ought be open to the immediacy of the Spirit’s guidance. He suggests some intriguing ideas of what it means for the Spirit to go before the church in mission and the need to be attentive to the Spirit’s presence in the cultures and even other religions that we engage. While in every situation there will be discontinuity between gospel and culture, we are also wise to look for how the way has been prepared. The Spirit can give discernment, pointing toward Christ, expressing the winsome fruit of his presence, and helping us to “remember the poor.”

As Smith summarizes, all this is a call to both intentionality in understanding the person and work of the Holy Spirit and receptive attentiveness to welcome Him into our lives. This book is a wonderful primer that helps accomplish what it advocates. Smith, as always, writes with clarity and precision and warmth, constantly moving from theological truth to implications for the life of the believer and the church. There is ecumenicity at its best, focusing both on common ground truths we may all embrace, and complementary insights from different traditions, including that of Pentecostalism, and his own tradition in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, reacquainting a new generation with some of the works of A. W. Tozer. In all of this, Smith’s intent would be for us to understand how we may experience the work of the Spirit as we grow in holiness, learn to pray, worship and work with God’s people, and engage in God’s mission. I concluded the book with his prayer, “Welcome, Holy Spirit!”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Doctrine of Scripture

The Doctrine of Scripture, Brad East (Foreword by Katherine Sonderegger). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021.

Summary: A concise exploration of the doctrine of scripture focusing on the church’s joyful and thankful confession, “this is the word of the Lord.”

Brad East begins this work with a striking statement: “The doctrine of Holy Scripture is a matter of joy.” He notes the practice of many churches following the reading of the scriptures to say, “The word of the Lord.” to which the congregation replies, “Thanks be to God!” East, in this work, seeks to outline the doctrine of scripture in a way that is representative of a broad swath of Christianity, working from the Canon of scripture to the Rule of Faith found in the early creeds, and the ecumenical councils.

East outlines his doctrine of scripture under six one-word chapter titles:

Source: East explores what it is we mean that scripture comes from God. He explores whether we can form our understanding of scripture from scripture, who is this God who speaks, and how do we understand the inspiration of human authors, specifically, “that the words they naturally will to write are one and the same as those which God wills them to write,” yet without human writers being mere automatons.

Nature: Of what are we speaking by the terms “Holy Scripture” or “Bible”? East would answer, “each and every instance, past, present, and future, of any or all parts of any and all versions of the texts included in the canon of the church’s Scripture.” This supports the translatability of scripture, its fecundity, apparent before my eyes in the seven English versions in front of me as I write. He discusses matters of bibliolatry, biblicism, and individualized versions of sola scriptura. He likens scripture to the offices of Christ. When it is read, it speaks prophetically, it mediates salvation to the world, and it heralds the king.

Attributes. In this chapter, East develops the apostolic necessity of scripture, given the delay in the return of Christ, the holy sufficiency of scripture to accomplish God’s purpose, the catholic clarity of scripture, that scripture’s meaning is only clearly understood with the church, particularly in light of its creeds (an argument differing from the Reformers), and the one truth of scripture to which it unerringly witnesses, making known all we need for salvation.

Ends. Ultimately, scripture guides the exiled people of God in mission toward the consummation of all things in Christ. He describes four ends within this larger picture in life of believers: befriending Christ: beatitude and conversion; following Christ: instruction and edification; imaging Christ: sanctification and perseverance; and knowing Christ: communion and contemplative delight.

Interpretation: He begins with a kind of glossary of terms used in hermeneutical discussion. A highlight of this chapter is East’s proposal that the center of interpretation ought be the worshipping church of baptized believers expectant to encounter her living Lord in both word and sacrament. Private reading, for East comes secondary to this. Also, he challenges historical-critical readings that attempt to discern authorial intent, particularly because this, through the early centuries of the church was subject to Christological readings, where the words of Moses and the prophets are understood in their fullest meaning through the life and work of Christ, a principle evident in apostolic reading of these texts. He argues that we read scripture as God’s inspired word, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as a product and gift to the church of Jesus Christ, canonically, reading these writings as a collection, and interpreted through and in consonance with the rule of faith.

Authority. Here, East discusses how the divine authority of God is mediated to us through the authority of scriptures through the offices of the church. He notes ten questions the doctrine of biblical authority raises that must be worked out in the church’s practice.

This was not a book of same old, same old verities but a thoughtful framing of the doctrine of scripture that avoids the de-supernaturalizing tendencies of modern scholarship and the extremes of bibliolatry while at the same time upholding the wondrous reality of hearing the Word of the Lord together as the people of God. He avoids dangers of privatized versions of sola scriptura as well as fleshly scholarship that fails to depend on the illuminating work of the Spirit of God. He affirms the primacy of scripture and yet the importance of testing our readings of scripture against the Rule of Faith and the readings of the church over the centuries.

For me, this was doctrine at its best, doctrine that led to doxology as I rejoiced in the God who has spoken and who has provided a record of this witness (the section on the confection reminded me of the work of God in preserving and bringing together the inspired texts that constitute scripture). It reminded me of the great drama we enact each time we gather as scripture is both read and proclaimed and under the gracious work of God’s Spirit, we are enabled to hear God speak afresh. I was reminded afresh of how we have been given in scripture all we need for life and godliness. Finally, I appreciated a book that sidesteps our contemporary polemics that often divide to formulate a doctrine of scripture faithful to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: T. F. Torrance as Missional Theologian

T. F. Torrance as Missional Theologian (New Explorations in Theology), Joseph H. Sherrard, Foreword by Alan Torrance. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An examination of the contribution Thomas Torrance’s theological work makes to the church’s understanding of missiology, particularly centered around his understanding of the Godhead, the person of Christ, and Christ’s threefold offices and the church’s participation in them.

Thomas Torrance lived in the shadow of his mentor Karl Barth as well as collaborators like Leslie Newbigin. Much of his theological work addressed the nature of the Triune God and the person of Christ, as well as the relationship between science and theology. Joseph H. Sherrard asserts, contrary to first appearances, Torrance’s work offers a distinctive basis for the missiology of the church.

He begins with Torrance’s doctrine of God. Torrance’s doctrine of the homoousion leads to the idea that who the Triune God is in essence is who God is to us. There is no room for dualism, sealing God off from the material world God created. He highlights the lack of separation between God and the logos in Athanasius, the Reformation doctrine that saw the gift of grace and the Giver of grace as one, and the way Barth united these two insights in his thought. God’s mission that reconciles the world and creates the world reflects what God is in essence rather than something added or set apart.

Sherrard then turns to Christology, focusing on Torrance’s understanding of the threefold office of Christ as king, priest and prophet, and how the latter two often come together in Torrance’s work. I thought Sherrard’s treatment here was rich in material for theological reflection, including a discussion of three terms for redemption that form Torrance’s thought and how these map onto Christ’s threefold office:

  • paddah, referring to a powerful, gracious work redeeming from sin’s power.
  • kipper, the wiping out of sin, effecting propitiation between God and man.
  • goel, the kinsman redeemer

In his chapter on Christology, Sherrard also elaborates the importance of the ascension as creating the space for the church as Christ’s body to participate in his ministry.

He then turns to this idea of the church as the body of Christ. Torrance saw the church as shaped by “the analogy of Christ” in four ways:

  1. As a sent church as the Son was sent
  2. As a body constrained by suffering as was Christ as the Suffering Servant
  3. In its identity with fallen humanity as Christ so identified himself
  4. In its movement toward teleological fullness as Christ is the one who fills all in all.

In the chapter, Sherrard also contrasts Torrance and Newbigin, particularly with regard to the latter’s more robust pneumatology.

Chapters four and five focus on the three offices and how the church in its mission participates in these. Chapter four focuses on the royal office. The church reflects the new creation, the new order under, and exercising royal authority, in the world. Sherrard notes that in the realm of political theology, Torrance left us with some ambiguity of how this authority is to be worked out vis a vis the state, a critical lacuna in our current moment. Chapter five then turns to the prophetic ministry and its relation to preaching and the priestly ministry and the place of sacraments in enacting that ministry. One of the criticisms Sherrard notes is that the prophetic ministry takes a back seat to the priestly in Torrance’s writing and is “underdetermined.”

,He concludes with a summary and assessment of Torrance’s contribution to missiology. First is the grounding of missiology in the Triune God rather than sociology. Second, and occupying much of this work is how mission ought be shaped by Christ’s threefold office. Third, and not something I’ve discussed thus far, is the contribution of the idea of the “deposit of faith” to mission, that is that the gospel has been entrusted to the church, to be kept by its continued propagation. Finally is the idea of how the church participates in Christ’s threefold ministry, patterning its life on his.

As noted in this conclusion, it may be that Torrance’s most distinctive contribution is to ground mission in our theology of the Triune God and this God’s seamless relation with and redemptive movement toward the world. Only our ever-deepening worship of the Triune God can sustain our missional efforts. Only his Son provides the definitive pattern for our mission. Only the gospel of a gracious God is sufficiently worthy to proclaim. Sherrard rightly notes our tendency to turn from theology to sociology, or worse pragmatic methodology. We do well to attend to the caution, and the rich contribution Torrance makes to a robust missiology.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: An Introduction to Ecclesiology

An Introduction to Ecclesiology, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An introduction to different historical theologies of the church, contemporary theologies from throughout the world, the mission and practices of the church, and the church and other religious communities.

At one time, an introduction to ecclesiology would be complete with parts one and three of this work. It would be sufficient to discuss the historical theologies of the church from the major church traditions, and the liturgy, sacraments or ordinances of the church and the mission of the church from the West, from where these theologies arose, to the rest of the world. The changes, even from an earlier edition of this work, reflect the growth of indigenously led Christianity on every continent engaged in the theological task as well as the increasing awareness of Christianity’s intersection with, points of contact and difference with, and need to engage the other major religious communities of the world. These latter two form parts two and four of the present work.

Part one then discusses the major traditions of the church and what these have meant by confessing one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. A chapter each is devoted to six major traditions, featuring a representative theologian and a key theme. In order, they are:

  1. Eastern Orthodoxy, “The Church as an Icon of the Trinity” (John Zizioulos)
  2. Roman Catholic, “The Church as the People of God” (Hans Kung)
  3. Lutheran, “The Church Around the Word and Sacraments, Part One” (Wolfhart Pannenberg)
  4. Reformed, “The Church Around the Word and Sacraments, Part Two” (Jurgen Moltmann)
  5. Free Church, “The Church as Fellowship of Believers” (James William McClendon, Jr.)
  6. Pentecostal/Charismatic, “The Church in the Power of the Spirit” (no representative theologian)

It is surprising that no separate chapters address Anglicanism and its Wesleyan offshoots and that German theologians are representative of three of these traditions. Might not Herman Bavinck or Abraham Kuyper be more representative of the Reformed movement?

Part two turns to global theologies. Latin American theology turns to theologies of liberation and the idea of base communities. Africa has a long church history from early Christianity, to Catholic and colonial missions efforts , and the rise of the African Initiated Churches, the latter with a significant emphasis on the Spirit in the churches. The chapter on Asian ecclesiology was surprisingly short, focusing on “church-less” Christianity and Pentecostal and indigenous churches. Greater attention is given to global feminist ecclesiologies, particularly the confrontation of patriarchy, womanist black theology, and mujerista Latina theology. The North American church is treated as a mosaic of historic traditions, the Black church, immigrant communities and emergent churches.

Liturgy, order, and mission are the focus of part three. It traces a development of a multi-dimensional focus on mission shared by the whole church as a response to colonialism Subsequent chapters outline different understandings of ministry, liturgy and worship, and the sacraments or ordinances. The final chapter focuses on what the unity of the church can mean amid such diversity and various ecumenical efforts as well as the resistance to such. On this last, I would like to have seen more discussion of this in a global context as the predominance of the church has shifted from Europe and North America to the rest of the world.

The last part consider Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism with regard to community among these religions. Probably most significant for me are the connections of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as people of the book, as well as the Sangha communities of Buddhism. I felt this section somewhat cursory, addressed much better in texts on world or comparative religions. Still, to consider the counterparts to the communal nature of Christianity, and even what the individualistic West might learn from these counterparts is worthwhile.

This is an introductory text that doesn’t attempt to formulate a distinctive ecclesiology but rather survey how theologians have understood the nature of the church through history and around the world. It’s useful as part of a doctrine or theological survey course and points people to the contributions of key theologians in the field. It is written with clarity and concision, and if in some place, one may want more coverage, in no place will one want less.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Science and the Doctrine of Creation

Science and the Doctrine of Creation, Edited by Geoffrey H. Fulkerson and Joel Thomas Chopp, afterword by Alister E. McGrath. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of ten modern theologians and how each engaged science in light of the doctrine of creation.

Creation and science. These are often viewed in conflict and the discussion of how these relate is often a contentious space. This work takes a more constructive approach based on the idea that the doctrine of creation consists of far more than how humans came to exist. We fail to consider the God who has created, what is entailed in the act of creating, and what the nature and end of what is created.

Rather than seeking to articulate the doctrine of creation, this work considers ten theologians from the last two centuries, how they engaged the science of their day, and brought their particular grasp of the doctrine of creation to bear on this engagement. There are both recurring themes and divergences among these ten voices. Each chapter begins with a brief biography of the theologian, a discussion averaging about twenty pages, with resources for further reading at the conclusion of the chapter.

The theologians discussed and authors of the chapters are:

William Burt Pope (Fred Sanders). Pope distinguished between primary creation, in which God calls all things into existence, and secondary creation, the formation of an ordered universe, which both scripture and science may inform.

Abraham Kuyper (Craig Bartholomew). Kuyper both affirms creation, common grace and the image of God that grounds the scientific enterprise, and how nonregenerate thought in all dimensions of thought is flawed. For Kuyper, this meant neither unqualified endorsement of evolution nor uncritical opposition.

B. B. Warfield (Bradley J. Gundlach). Warfield hosted Kuyper’s Princeton Stone Lectures. Many have claimed Warfield for eolution. Gundlach offers a more nuanced picture, emphasizing both Warfield’s humble and open approach to the science of his day while focusing on creation (including the idea of mediate creation), providence and supernaturalism.

Rudolf Bultmann (Joshua W. Jipp). This chapter looks at how Bultmann’s demythologization project applied to creation, with the conclusion that scripture doesn’t give us an objective view of the world or ontology. It is rather “faith in man’s present determination by God.” Jipp prefers the concord Alvin Plantinga sees between science and faith to the bifurcated view of Bultmann.

Karl Barth (Katherine Sonderegger). Barth had little to say about theology and natural science. Sonderegger contrasts Barth and Schleiermacher, emphasizing Barth’s doctrine of creation as one that “lays claim to the whole of reality.”

T. F. Torrance (Kevin J. Vanhoozer). Torrance propounded a “kataphysical” theology that brought together ontology and epistemology, denying a divergence between the way things appear and the way they are. Central to all of this Christ, the God-man, who is homoousios, of the same substance with the Father and the Spirit.

Jürgen Moltmann (Stephen N. Williams). Williams explores Moltmann’s “open system” doctrine of God and his vision of a common environment of science and theology.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (Christoph Schwöbel). Drawing on Faraday’s “field of force,” Pannenberg developed a theology of nature that is neither mechanistic nor a “God of the gaps” but rooted in the unity of all reality.

Robert Jenson (Stephen John Wright). Drawing on narrative and history, ideas of time and eternity, and Christology, Jenson contended both science and theology focused on the same reality, the world of creation.

Colin E. Gunton (Murray A. Rae). Gunton’s theological career focused on a reinvigorated understanding of the Trinity. Rae focused on how Gunton’s understanding of the Triune creator affirms creation ex nihilo, a contingent creation, and science as an extension of the human cultural mandate.

One of the themes running through a number of these chapters was the importance of understanding the nature of God to understand the nature of creation. Also, a number of the chapters countered the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea with a unitive vision of theology and science grounded God’s being and activity. One consequence is the intelligibility of the world, both through revelation and science.

This is a valuable resource for the science-theology conversation that moves beyond evolution debates. Both the theologians featured and those who write of them model humble appreciation of both the creative work of God and scientific inquiry. Not only do these contributions underscore, as Alister McGrath notes in the afterword, the coherence of Christian faith, but they highlight the glory of the Creator in the creation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: God Has Chosen

God Has Chosen, Mark R. Lindsay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A survey of the development of the doctrine of election throughout Christian history, including discussions of human freedom, those who are not of the elect, and the status of Israel as chosen.

The idea of election, that God chooses a people for God’s self, is one precious to some, an assurance of belonging and of God having done something we could not do. It is threatening to others–how may I know I am among the elect, and how can God save some and not others?

From the writers of scripture to the present day, the church’s theologians have wrestled with these ideas. What Mark R. Lindsay does in this work is to trace the development of this doctrine throughout Christian history. After an introduction in which he differentiates his approach from other contemporary scholars, he begins with some of the key texts on election from both testaments, emphasizing that any idea of chosenness has to draw upon what this meant for Israel. This is followed by a consideration of the early fathers: Ignatius of Antioch, Origen, Cyprian, and Augustine. This was a formative period for the church’s doctrine and the corresponding question of who is “in” and who is “out” that reflect their convictions about election.

In subsequent chapters Lindsay considers two or three key thinkers in each chapter. Chapter three focuses on Aquinas and Duns Scotus, where the elect and citizens of the state were more or less one and the same. Chapter four focuses on three Reformation figures: Calvin, Beza, and Arminius. Striking here is the relatively limited space devoted to this by Calvin, the expansion and extension of Calvin’s thought by Beza, and the responses of Arminius regarding human agency and God’s salvation.

Chapter five addresses early modernity and Lindsay offers an interesting pairing of Schliermacher and J. N. Darby. On the face, they could not be more different but Lindsay argues for an expansive vision of God’s electing will as something they had in common. Chapter six focuses on Barth alone, and the development of his thought over the course of his career, particularly as his thought focused on Christ and the community formed in him, and its resistance to Nazi ideology. The final chapter then considers the Holocaust. If God chose the Jewish people in some way, what then do we make of the near extermination of that people? Does this deny the existence of God, or is the remnant that survives one more evidence of God’s continuing relation with this people? Or is this one more place to argue for a free will theodicy? And how ought Christians think of the Jewish people given the dangers of supercessionism?

Throughout the book, Lindsay explores the differing ways thinkers understood the elect and “the reprobate.” In his conclusion, he shows his own hand in expressing a tentative hopeful universalism grounded in our own incapacity to fully understand the mind of God. He cites Revelation 22:17: “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life” (Italics in the author’s citation of this verse). The author warns against “definitive pronouncements,” which is warranted. Given the testimony of the whole of scripture, and particularly that of our Lord, I think there might also be a caution against “speculative suggestions” that may soften the plain warnings of scripture. I believe we may hope and find comfort in the wideness of God’s electing grace while never presuming with regard to the warnings of judgment.

However one sorts these things out, this work is helpful in offering incisive summaries and comparisons of the thought of different key figures as well as an extensive bibliography. For a survey of two thousand years of thought, Lindsay has presented the reader with a work that is at once introductory and of significant depth on this important doctrine.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Doctrine of Creation

The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach, Bruce Riley Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the doctrine of creation, demonstrating how this doctrine is foundational and related to everything else in Christian theology.

The doctrine of creation has often been eclipsed in various ways in recent years. It has come under attack by some scientists and the arguments about the timing and efforts to harmonize biblical and scientific accounts have overshadowed the broader implications of this doctrine. The ongoing struggle of Christianity with gnostic tendencies have led to de-emphasis on the physical creation for some spiritualized, disembodied version of Christianity. For others, a Christocentric or cross-centric approach to theology also has led to de-emphasis on the doctrine of creation.

Ashford and Bartholomew draw upon the Kuyperian tradition in which the doctrine of creation is foundational and has implications for everything else while engaging other theologians and differing viewpoints in a constructive theological approach to this doctrine. This is one of those cases where they show as well as tell, not only making the argument, but showing the connections of this crucial doctrine to our understanding of culture, of God’s providence, of redemption and our eschatological hope, centered in the new creation.

They begin by outlining the doctrine of creation as an article of faith and how this relates to our doctrine of scripture and doctrine of God, and the fundamental idea of the goodness of creation, shaping our relationship with the physical world. They then engage in historical theology, surveying all the important theologians from the church fathers up through the modern period in two chapters. Before exegeting the early chapters of Genesis, a chapter is devoted to the omnipotence of God, the nature of evil, and the implications the idea of ex nihilo creation, which the authors support.

The next four chapters (5-8) walk through Genesis 1-3. They observe that from Genesis 1 alone we learn:

  • the existence of light;
  • the reality of time, days, seasons, years, and history;
  • the three great places of our world: sky, sea, and land;
  • the distinction between birds, sea creatures, and land animals;
  • the extraordinary world of flora and fruit trees and their importance in the food chain;
  • humankind as similar to and yet distinct from the other creatures and with unique capacities;
  • humankind as called to responsible stewardship of the creation;
  • humankind as gendered and inherently relational; and
  • humankind as inherently religious–that is, made for God. (p. 171)

The subsequent chapters explore Genesis 2, a discussion of the “heaven” in “heaven and earth” and the fall.

The authors then turn to other doctrines and the influence of the doctrine of creation. First is the influence of creation on our understanding of culture. A highlight of this chapter included a vocational focus on the rise of modern science, the art of Makoto Fujimura, and philospher Alvin Plantinga. The chapter on providence, “Creatio Continua,” was the highlight for me in a book full of treasures. In particular, they delineate the threefold providence of God as preservation, accompanying, and ruling. They even throw in a striking insight of the providence of God in the Septuagint, which gave a whole dictionary of Greek theological terms on which the early Christian movement could draw. Creation and the new creation are vitally intertwined, not simply as the beginning and end of the story. To what degree will the new creation restore, repristinate, or replace the old? And how should what is coming shape the way the church lives as disciples in the present.

The last chapter on “Creation And…” is a tour de force as the authors offer some of the best delineations I have seen in a few pages each of creation and…philosophy, the table (thinking about the implications of creation for how we eat), time, science, the self, and human dignity. An appendix follows in which Bartholomew and Michael Goheen outline in enumerated points the contours of a missional neo-Calvinism that shows in concise form how creation and the redemptive mission of God are integral to one another.

As noted, this work shows the richness of the doctrine of creation in its implications for all of life. The insets in the text may seem distracting at first but offer crucial theological elaboration of the discussion in each chapter. This is a work to be read slowly and reflectively. In the tradition of Calvin and Kuyper, one will be rewarded with deepening wonder in the greatness of God and delight in God’s creation and its implications for all of life.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought

J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought, Alister McGrath. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the theologian’s faith, life, and theological engagement.

J. I. Packer was one of my personal theological heroes. His impact on my life came primarily through the book Knowing God, which I read during my student days. As a young Christian, I discovered that the chief end of our lives as well as the work of theology is that we know, love, and glorify God, and not just know about him. The first time through, I read a few pages at a time, stopped, reflected, and prayed in wonder at the greatness, majesty, holiness, and love of God. It is one of those books I’ve re-read several times. I only heard Packer speak once, giving a series of lectures on revival in Ann Arbor, contrasting Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, along with an exposition of Psalm 85 as a prayer for revival. The talks were marked by precision of thought and warmth of devotion.

Reading this account of the life and thought of Packer by Alister McGrath, I came to understand that the qualities I appreciated in his lectures and his books reflected his central passion for theological education and catechesis for the good of the church. McGrath traces this thread through his books and thought and his career first in Bristol, then Oxford, then briefly again at Bristol, and finally at Regent in Canada. In fact, McGrath alternates chapters on his life with ones on aspects of his theological work.

He recounts Packer’s early life, his spiritual awakening and early embrace of the theology of the fathers and their ancient wisdom. He describes the relationship with D. Martyn Lloyd Jones and the development of the Puritan Studies Conferences, and their later falling out. At Tyndale Hall in Bristol, Packer comes into his own as a “theological educationalist.” This period marked Packer’s early efforts in publishing, centered around the editorial work on the first edition of The New Bible Dictionary and his first book on Fundamentalism and the Word of God. McGrath includes marvelous material here on how Packer’s devotional life fed both his pastoral and theological work.

Packer’s return to Oxford in the 1960’s as Warden of Latimer House came at a time of ferment within Anglican evangelicalism. McGrath features Packer’s marvelous reply to Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, the crisis in 1966 with Lloyd Jones leading to the cooling of their relationship and the Keele conference of 1967 defining an evangelical presence within Anglicanism. A key focus in Packer’s thought is theology for the life of the church. After this conference, Packer became convinced that it was time to move on from Latimer. He returned to take up the leadership of Tyndale Hall in a time of crisis leading to a merger creating Trinity College, with him no longer as principal. Time for writing led to a series of articles that became Knowing God.

One of the personal highlights of McGrath’s account was reading about James Sire’s visit with Packer and offer to acquire the U.S. rights of the book for InterVarsity Press, through which the book came into the hands of this young college student and many others becoming one of IVP’s all-time best selling works. By the 1977 Nottingham Conference, however, it became apparent that Packer was increasingly out of step with the younger evangelicals in England. This opened the door to Canada, and Regent College, and the opportunities for Packer to more fully pursue his ideas of theological education for the church, which he did as faculty and in retirement until his death in 2020.

One of the fascinating aspects developed by McGrath is Packer’s conservatism with an irenic streak. Packer was committed to the idea “test everything; hold onto the good.” He believe the good traditions of the past could deliver us from the idiosyncrasies of the present, all under the authority of the Bible. Hence his emphasis on the Reformers and Puritan studies. This put him at variance with others, particularly at two points: the ministry of women and his views of eternal punishment. Yet he also join the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative, finding the places of common ground while delineating theological difference with clarity. It strikes me you needed someone like Packer to do this to avoid making a theological hash of the whole affair.

McGrath has given us a wonderful summary of the life and thought of Packer. Indeed, we see how what Packer thought shaped how he lived. Packer believed in theological education as not merely an academic exercise but as existing for the strengthening of the church in the knowledge of God. McGrath helps us see how the whole trajectory of Packer’s life was shaped by these commitments. It also leaves me two questions to ponder. One is, amid a changing world, what must be conserved? The second is, amid the powerful and competing influences of our culture, how might we carry forward Packer’s commitment to catechesis, the formation of Christians in thought, word, and deed?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.